[OPE] David Harvey, "Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition"

From: Gerald Levy <jerry_levy@verizon.net>
Date: Sun Dec 20 2009 - 10:54:48 EST

Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition
David Harvey
CUNY Graduate Center, New York.
The historical geography of capitalist development is at a key inflexion
point in which the geographical configurations of power are rapidly shifting
at the very moment when the temporal dynamic is facing very serious
constraints. Three percent compound growth (generally considered the
minimum satisfactory growth rate for a healthy capitalist economy) is
becoming less and less feasible to sustain without resort to all manner of
fictions (such as those that have characterized asset markets and financial
affairs over the last two decades). There are good reasons to believe that
there is no alternative to a new global order of governance that will
eventually have to manage the transition to a zero growth economy. If that
is to be done in an equitable way, then there is no alternative to socialism
or communism. Since the late 1990s, the World Social Forum became the
center for articulating the theme “another world is possible.” It must now
take up the task of defining how another socialism or communism is possible
and how the transition to these alternatives are to be accomplished. The
current crisis offers a window of opportunity to reflect on what might be
The current crisis originated in the steps taken to resolve the crisis of
the 1970s. These steps included:
(a) the successful assault upon organized labor and its political
institutions while mobilizing global labor surpluses, instituting
labor-saving technological changes and heightening competition. The result
has been global wage repressions (a declining share of wages in total GDP
almost everywhere) and the creation of an even vaster disposable labor
reserve living under marginal conditions.
(b) undermining previous structures of monopoly power and displacing the
previous stage of (nation state) monopoly capitalism by opening up
capitalism to far fiercer international competition. Intensifying global
competition translated into lower non-financial corporate profits. Uneven
geographical development and inter-territorial competition became key
features in capitalist development, opening the way towards the beginnings
of a hegemonic shift of power particularly but not exclusively towards East
(c) utilizing and empowering the most fluid and highly mobile form of
capital – money capital – to reallocate capital resources globally
(eventually through electronic markets) thus sparking deindustrialization in
traditional core regions and new forms of (ultra-oppressive)
industrialization and natural resource and agricultural raw material
extractions in emergent markets. The corollary was to enhance the
profitability of financial corporations and to find new ways to globalize
and supposedly absorb risks through the creation of fictitious capital
(d) At the other end of the social scale, this meant heightened reliance on
“accumulation by dispossession” as a means to augment capitalist class
power. The new rounds of primitive accumulation against indigenous and
peasant populations were augmented by asset losses of the lower classes in
the core economies (as witnessed by the sub-prime housing market in the US
which foisted a huge asset loss particularly upon African American
(e) The augmentation of otherwise sagging effective demand by pushing the
debt economy (governmental, corporate and household) to its limits
(particularly in the USA and the UK but also in many other countries from
Latvia to Dubai).
(f) Compensating for anemic rates of return in production by the
construction of whole series of asset market bubbles, all of which had a
Ponzi character, culminating in the property bubble that burst in 2007-8.
These asset bubbles drew upon finance capital and were facilitated by
extensive financial innovations such as derivatives and collateralized debt
The political forces that coalesced and mobilized behind these transitions
had a distinctive class character and clothed themselves in the vestments of
a distinctive ideology called neoliberal. The ideology rested upon the idea
that free markets, free trade, personal initiative and entrepreneurialism
were the best guarantors of individual liberty and freedom and that the
“nanny state” should be dismantled for the benefit of all. But the practice
entailed that the state must stand behind the integrity of financial
institutions, thus introducing (beginning with the Mexican and developing
countries debt crisis of 1982) “moral hazard” big time into the financial
system. The state (local and national) also became increasingly committed
to providing a “good business climate” to attract investments in a highly
competitive environment. The interests of the people were secondary to the
interests of capital and in the event of a conflict between them, the
interests of the people had to be sacrificed (as became standard practice in
IMF structural adjustments programs from the early 1980s onwards). The
system that has been created amounts to a veritable form of communism for
the capitalist class.
These conditions varied considerably, of course, depending upon what part of
the world one inhabited, the class relations prevailing there, the political
and cultural traditions and how the balance of political-economic power was
So how can the left negotiate the dynamics of this crisis? At times of
crisis, the irrationality of capitalism becomes plain for all to see.
Surplus capital and surplus labor exist side-by side with seemingly no way
to put them back together in the midst of immense human suffering and unmet
needs. In midsummer of 2009, one third of the capital equipment in the
United States stood idle, while some 17 per cent of the workforce were
either unemployed, enforced part-timers or “discouraged” workers. What could
be more irrational than that!
Can capitalism survive the present trauma? Yes. But at what cost? This
question masks another. Can the capitalist class reproduce its power in the
face of the raft of economic, social, political and geopolitical and
environmental difficulties? Again, the answer is a resounding “yes.” But
the mass of the people will have to surrender the fruits of their labour to
those in power, to surrender many of their rights and their hard-won asset
values (in everything from housing to pension rights), and to suffer
environmental degradations galore to say nothing of serial reductions in
their living standards which means starvation for many of those already
struggling to survive at rock bottom. Class inequalities will increase (as
we already see happening). All of that may require more than a little
political repression, police violence and militarized state control to
stifle unrest.
Since much of this is unpredictable and since the spaces of the global
economy are so variable, then uncertainties as to outcomes are heightened at
times of crisis. All manner of localized possibilities arise for either
nascent capitalists in some new space to seize opportunities to challenge
older class and territorial hegemonies (as when Silicon Valley replaced
Detroit from the mid-1970s onwards in the United States) or for radical
movements to challenge the reproduction of an already destabilized class
power. To say that the capitalist class and capitalism can survive is not
to say that they are predestined to do so nor does it say that their future
character is given. Crises are moments of paradox and possibilities.
So what will happen this time around? If we are to get back to three
percent growth, then this means finding new and profitable global investment
opportunities for $1.6 trillion in 2010 rising to closer to $3 trillion by
2030. This contrasts with the $0.15 trillion new investment needed in 1950
and the $0.42 trillion needed in 1973 (the dollar figures are inflation
adjusted). Real problems of finding adequate outlets for surplus capital
began to emerge after 1980, even with the opening up of China and the
collapse of the Soviet Bloc. The difficulties were in part resolved by
creation of fictitious markets where speculation in asset values could take
off unhindered. Where will all this investment go now?
Leaving aside the undisputable constraints in the relation to nature (with
global warming of paramount importance), the other potential barriers of
effective demand in the market place, of technologies and of geographical/
geopolitical distributions are likely to be profound, even supposing, which
is unlikely, that no serious active oppositions to continuous capital
accumulation and further consolidation of class power materialize. What
spaces are left in the global economy for new spatial fixes for capital
surplus absorption? China and the ex-Soviet bloc have already been
integrated. South and SouthEast Asia is filling up fast. Africa is not yet
fully integrated but there is nowhere else with the capacity to absorb all
this surplus capital. What new lines of production can be opened up to
absorb growth? There may be no effective long-run capitalist solutions
(apart from reversion to fictitious capital manipulations) to this crisis of
capitalism. At some point quantitative changes lead to qualitative shifts
and we need to take seriously the idea that we may be at exactly such an
inflexion point in the history of capitalism. Questioning the future of
capitalism itself as an adequate social system ought, therefore, to be in
the forefront of current debate.
Yet there appears to be little appetite for such discussion, even among the
left. Instead we continue to hear the usual conventional mantras regarding
the perfectibility of humanity with the help of free markets and free trade,
private property and personal responsibility, low taxes and minimalist state
involvement in social provision, even though this all sounds increasingly
hollow. A crisis of legitimacy looms. But legitimation crises typically
unfold at a different pace and rhythm to that of stock markets. It took,
for example, three or four years before the stock market crash of 1929
produced the massive social movements (both progressive and fascistic) after
1932 or so. The intensity of the current pursuit by political power of ways
to exit the present crisis may have something to do with the political fear
of looming illegitimacy.
The last thirty years, however, has seen the emergence of systems of
governance that seem immune to legitimacy problems and unconcerned even with
the creation of consent. The mix of authoritarianism, monetary corruption of
representative democracy, surveillance, policing and militarization
(particularly through the war on terror), media control and spin suggests a
world in which the control of discontent through disinformation,
fragmentations of oppositions and the shaping of oppositional cultures
through the promotion of NGOs tends to prevail with plenty of coercive force
to back it up if necessary.
The idea that the crisis had systemic origins is scarcely mooted in the
mainstream media (even as a few mainstream economists like Stiglitz, Krugman
and even Jeffrey Sachs attempt to steal some of the left’s historical
thunder by confessing to an epiphany or two). Most of the governmental
moves to contain the crisis in North America and Europe amount to the
perpetuation of business as usual which translates into support for the
capitalist class. The “moral hazard” that was the immediate trigger for the
financial failures is being taken to new heights in the bank bail-outs. The
actual practices of neoliberalism (as opposed to its utopian theory) always
entailed blatant support for finance capital and capitalist elites (usually
on the grounds that financial institutions must be protected at all costs
and that it is the duty of state power to create a good business climate for
solid profiteering). This has not fundamentally changed. Such practices are
justified by appeal to the dubious proposition that a “rising tide” of
capitalist endeavor will “lift all boats” or that the benefits of compound
growth will magically “trickle down” (which it never does except in the form
of a few crumbs from the rich folks’ table).
So how will the capitalist class exit the current crisis and how swift will
the exit be? The rebound in stock market values from Shanghai and Tokyo to
Frankfurt, London and New York is a good sign we are told even as
unemployment pretty much everywhere continues to rise. But notice the class
bias in that measure. We are enjoined to rejoice in the rebound in stock
values for the capitalists because it always precedes, it is said, a rebound
in the “real economy” where jobs for the workers are created and incomes
earned. The fact that the last stock rebound in the United States after
2002 turned out to be a “jobless recovery” appears to have been forgotten
already. The Anglo-Saxon public in particular appears to be seriously
afflicted with amnesia. It too easily forgets and forgives the
transgressions of the capitalist class and the periodic disasters its
actions precipitate. The capitalist media are happy to promote such amnesia.
China and India are still growing, the former by leaps and bounds. But in
China’s case, the cost is a huge expansion of bank lending on risky projects
(the Chinese banks were not caught up in the global speculative frenzy but
now are continuing it). The overaccumulation of productive capacity
proceeds a-pace and long-term infrastructural investments whose productivity
will not be known for several years, are booming (even in urban property
markets). And China’s burgeoning demand is entraining those economies
supplying raw materials, like Australia and Chile. The likelihood of a
subsequent crash in China cannot be dismissed but it may take time to
discern (a long-term version of Dubai). Meanwhile the global epicenter of
capitalism accelerates its shift parimarily towards East Asia.
In the older financial centers, the young financial sharks have taken their
bonuses of yesteryear, collectively started boutique financial institutions
to circle Wall Street and the City of London to sift through the detritus of
yesterdays financial giants to snaffle up the juicy bits and start all over
again. The investment banks that remain in the US – Goldman Sachs and
J.P.Morgan – though reincarnated as bank holding companies have gained
exemption (thanks to the Federal Reserve) from regulatory requirements and
are making huge profits (and setting aside moneys for huge bonuses to match)
out of speculating dangerously using tax-payers money in unregulated and
still booming derivative markets. The leveraging that got us into the crisis
has resumed big time as if nothing has happened. Innovations in finance are
on the march as new ways to package and sell fictitious capital debts are
being pioneered and offered to institutions (such as pension funds)
desperate to find new outlets for surplus capital. The fictions (as well as
the bonuses) are back!
Consortia are buying up foreclosed properties, either waiting for the market
to turn before making a killing or banking high value land for a future
moment of active redevelopment. The regular banks are stashing away cash,
much of it garnered from the public coffers, also with an eye to resuming
bonus payments consistent with a former lifestyle while a whole host of
entrepreneurs hover in the wings waiting to seize this moment of creative
destruction backed by a flood of public moneys.
Meanwhile raw money power wielded by the few undermines all semblances of
democratic governance. The pharmaceutical, health insurance and hospital
lobbies, for example, spent more than $133 million in the first three months
of 2009 to make sure they got their way on health care reform in the United
States. Max Baucus, head of the key Senate finance committee that shaped the
health care bill received $1.5 million for a bill that delivers a vast
number of new clients to the insurance companies with few protections
against ruthless exploitation and profiteering (Wall Street is delighted).
Another electoral cycle, legally corrupted by immense money power, will soon
be upon us. In the United States, the parties of “K Street” and of Wall
Street will be duly re-elected as working Americans are exhorted to work
their way out of the mess that the ruling class has created. We have been in
such dire straits before, we are reminded, and each time working Americans
have rolled up their sleeves, tightened their belts, and saved the system
from some mysterious mechanics of auto-destruction for which the ruling
class denies all responsibility. Personal responsibility is, after all, for
the workers and not for the capitalists.
If this is the outline of the exit strategy then almost certainly we will be
in another mess within five years. The faster we come out of this crisis
and the less excess capital is destroyed now, the less room there will be
for the revival of long-term active growth. The loss of asset values at this
conjuncture (mid 2009) is, we are told by the IMF, at least $55 trillion,
which is equivalent to almost exactly one year’s global output of goods and
services. Already we are back to the output levels of 1989. We may be
looking at losses of $400 trillion or more before we are through. Indeed,
in a recent startling calculation, it was suggested that the US state alone
was on the hook to guarantee more than $200 trillion in asset values. The
likelihood that all of those assets would go bad is very minimal, but the
thought that many of them could is sobering in the extreme. Just to take a
concrete example: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, now taken over by the US
Government, own or guarantee more than $5 trillion in home loans many of
which are in deep trouble (losses of more than $150 billion were recorded in
2008 alone). So what, then, are the alternatives?
It has long been the dream of many in the world, that an alternative to
capitalist (ir)rationality can be defined and rationally arrived at through
the mobilization of human passions in the collective search for a better
life for all. These alternatives – historically called socialism or
communism – have, in various times and places been tried. In former times,
such as the 1930s, the vision of one or other of them operated as a beacon
of hope. But in recent times they have both lost their luster, been
dismissed as wanting, not only because of the failure of historical
experiments with communism to make good on their promises and the penchant
for communist regimes to cover over their mistakes by repression, but also
because of their supposedly flawed presuppositions concerning human nature
and the potential perfectibility of the human personality and of human
The difference between socialism and communism is worth noting. Socialism
aims to democratically manage and regulate capitalism in ways that calm its
excesses and redistribute its benefits for the common good. It is about
spreading the wealth around through progressive taxation arrangements while
basic needs – such as education, health care and even housing – are provided
by the state out of reach of market forces. Many of the key achievements of
redistributive socialism in the period after 1945, not only in Europe but
beyond, have become so socially embedded as to be immune from neoliberal
assault. Even in the United States, Social Security and Medicare are
extremely popular programs that right wing forces find it almost impossible
to dislodge. The Thatcherites in Britain could not touch national health
care except at the margins. Social provision in Scandinavia and most of
Western Europe seems to be an unshakable bed-rock of the social order.
Communism, on the other hand, seeks to displace capitalism by creating an
entirely different mode of both production and distribution of goods and
services. In the history of actually existing communism, social control
over production, exchange and distribution meant state control and
systematic state planning. In the long-run this proved to be unsuccessful
though, interestingly, its conversion in China (and its earlier adoption in
places like Singapore) has proven far more successful than the pure
neoliberal model in generating capitalist growth for reasons that cannot be
elaborated upon here. Contemporary attempts to revive the communist
hypothesis typically abjure state control and look to other forms of
collective social organization to displace market forces and capital
accumulation as the basis for organizing production and distribution.
Horizontally networked as opposed to hierarchically commanded systems of
coordination between autonomously organized and self-governing collectives
of producers and consumers are envisaged as lying at the core of a new form
of communism. Contemporary technologies of communication make such a system
seem feasible. All manner of small-scale experiments around the world can be
found in which such economic and political forms are being constructed. In
this there is a convergence of some sort between the Marxist and anarchist
traditions that harks back to the broadly collaborative situation between
them in the 1860s in Europe.
While nothing is certain, it could be that 2009 marks the beginning of a
prolonged shake out in which the question of grand and far-reaching
alternatives to capitalism will step-by-step bubble up to the surface in one
part of the world or another. The longer the uncertainty and the misery is
prolonged, the more the legitimacy of the existing way of doing business
will be questioned and the more the demand to build something different will
escalate. Radical as opposed to band-aid reforms to patch up the financial
system may seem more necessary.
The uneven development of capitalist practices throughout the world has
produced, moreover, anti-capitalist movements all over the place. The
state-centric economies of much of East Asia generate different discontents
(as in Japan and China) compared to the churning anti-neoliberal struggles
occurring throughout much of Latin America where the Bolivarian
revolutionary movement of popular power exists in a peculiar relationship to
capitalist class interests that have yet to be truly confronted.
Differences over tactics and policies in response to the crisis among the
states that make up the European Union are increasing even as a second
attempt to come up with a unified EU constitution is under way.
Revolutionary and resolutely anti-capitalist movements are also to be found,
though not all of them are of a progressive sort, in many of the marginal
zones of capitalism. Spaces have been opened up within which something
radically different in terms of dominant social relations, ways of life,
productive capacities and mental conceptions of the world can flourish.
This applies as much to the Taliban and to communist rule in Nepal as to the
Zapatistas in Chiapas and indigenous movements in Bolivia, the Maoist
movements in rural India, even as they are world’s apart in objectives,
strategies and tactics.
The central problem is that in aggregate there is no resolute and
sufficiently unified anti-capitalist movement that can adequately challenge
the reproduction of the capitalist class and the perpetuation of its power
on the world stage. Neither is there any obvious way to attack the bastions
of privilege for capitalist elites or to curb their inordinate money power
and military might. While openings exist towards some alternative social
order, no one really knows where or what it is. But just because there is no
political force capable of articulating let alone mounting such a program,
this is no reason to hold back on outlining alternatives.
Lenin’s famous question “what is to be done?” cannot be answered, to be
sure, without some sense of who it is might do it where. But a global
anti-capitalist movement is unlikely to emerge without some animating vision
of what is to be done and why. A double blockage exists: the lack of an
alternative vision prevents the formation of an oppositional movement, while
the absence of such a movement precludes the articulation of an alternative.
How, then, can this blockage be transcended? The relation between the
vision of what is to be done and why, and the formation of a political
movement across particular places to do it has to be turned into a spiral.
Each has to reinforce the other if anything is actually to get done.
Otherwise potential opposition will be forever locked down into a closed
circle that frustrates all prospects for constructive change, leaving us
vulnerable to perpetual future crises of capitalism with increasingly deadly
results. Lenin’s question demands an answer.
The central problem to be addressed is clear enough. Compound growth for
ever is not possible and the troubles that have beset the world these last
thirty years signal that a limit is looming to continuous capital
accumulation that cannot be transcended except by creating fictions that
cannot last. Add to this the facts that so many people in the world live in
conditions of abject poverty, that environmental degradations are spiraling
out of control, that human dignities are everywhere being offended even as
the rich are piling up more and more wealth (the number of billionaires in
India doubled last year from 27 to 52) under their command and that the
levers of political, institutional, judicial, military and media power are
under such tight but dogmatic political control as to be incapable of doing
much more than perpetuating the status quo and frustrating discontent.
A revolutionary politics that can grasp the nettle of endless compound
capital accumulation and eventually shut it down as the prime motor of human
history, requires a sophisticated understanding of how social change occurs.
The failings of past endeavors to build a lasting socialism and communism
have to be avoided and lessons from that immensely complicated history must
be learned. Yet the absolute necessity for a coherent anti-capitalist
revolutionary movement must also be recognized. The fundamental aim of that
movement is to assume social command over both the production and
distribution of surpluses.
We urgently need an explicit revolutionary theory suited to our times. I
propose a “co-revolutionary theory” derived from an understanding of Marx’s
account of how capitalism arose out of feudalism. Social change arises
through the dialectical unfolding of relations between seven moments within
the body politic of capitalism viewed as an ensemble or assemblage of
activities and practices:
a) technological and organizational forms of production, exchange and
b) relations to nature
c) social relations between people
d) mental conceptions of the world, embracing knowledges and cultural
understandings and beliefs
e) labor processes and production of specific goods, geographies, services
or affects
f ) institutional, legal and governmental arrangements
g) the conduct of daily life that underpins social reproduction.
Each one of these moments is internally dynamic and internally marked by
tensions and contradictions (just think of mental conceptions of the world)
but all of them are co-dependent and co-evolve in relation to each other.
The transition to capitalism entailed a mutually supporting movement across
all seven moments. New technologies could not be identified and practices
without new mental conceptions of the world (including that of the relation
to nature and social relations). Social theorists have the habit of taking
just one of the these moments and viewing it as the “silver bullet” that
causes all change. We have technological determinists (Tom Friedman),
environmental determinists (Jarad Diamond), daily life determinists (Paul
Hawkin), labor process determinists (the autonomistas), institutionalists,
and so on and so forth. They are all wrong. It is the dialectical motion
across all of these moments that really counts even as there is uneven
development in that motion.
When capitalism itself undergoes one of its phases of renewal, it does so
precisely by co-evolving all moments, obviously not without tensions,
struggles, fights and contradictions. But consider how these seven moments
were configured around 1970 before the neoliberal surge and consider how
they look now and you will see they have all changed in ways that re-define
the operative characteristics of capitalism viewed as a non-Hegelian
An anti-capitalist political movement can start anywhere (in labor
processes, around mental conceptions, in the relation to nature, in social
relations, in the design of revolutionary technologies and organizational
forms, out of daily life or through attempts to reform institutional and
administrative structures including the reconfiguration of state powers).
The trick is to keep the political movement moving from one moment to
another in mutually reinforcing ways. This was how capitalism arose out of
feudalism and this is how something radically different called communism,
socialism or whatever must arise out of capitalism. Previous attempts to
create a communist or socialist alternative fatally failed to keep the
dialectic between the different moments in motion and failed to embrace the
unpredictabilities and uncertainties in the dialectical movement between
them. Capitalism has survived precisely by keeping the dialectical movement
between the moments going and constructively embracing the inevitable
tensions, including crises, that result.
Change arises, of course, out of an existing state of affairs and it has to
harness the possibilities immanent within an existing situation. Since the
existing situation varies enormously from Nepal, to the Pacific regions of
Bolivia, to the deindustrializing cities of Michigan and the still booming
cities of Mumbai and Shanghai and the shaken but by no means destroyed
financial centers of New York and London, so all manner of experiments in
social change in different places and at different geographical scales are
both likely and potentially illuminating as ways to make (or not make)
another world possible. And in each instance it may seem as if one or other
aspect of the existing situation holds the key to a different political
future. But the first rule for a global anti-capitalist movement must be:
never rely on the unfolding dynamics of one moment without carefully
calibrating how relations with all the others are adapting and
Feasible future possibilities arise out of the existing state of relations
between the different moments. Strategic political interventions within and
across the spheres can gradually move the social order onto a different
developmental path. This is what wise leaders and forward looking
institutions do all the time in local situations, so there is no reason to
think there is anything particularly fantastic or utopian about acting in
this way. The left has to look to build alliances between and across those
working in the distinctive spheres. An anti-capitalist movement has to be
far broader than groups mobilizing around social relations or over questions
of daily life in themselves. Traditional hostilities between, for example,
those with technical, scientific and administrative expertise and those
animating social movements on the ground have to be addressed and overcome.
We now have to hand, in the example of the climate change movement, a
significant example of how such alliances can begin to work.
In this instance the relation to nature is the beginning point, but everyone
realizes that something has to give on all the other moments and while there
is a wishful politics that wants to see the solution as purely
technological, it becomes clearer by the day that daily life, mental
conceptions, institutional arrangements, production processes and social
relations have to be involved. And all of that means a movement to
restructure capitalist society as a whole and to confront the growth logic
that underlies the problem in the first place.
There have, however, to be, some loosely agreed upon common objectives in
any transitional movement. Some general guiding norms can be set down.
These might include (and I just float these norms here for discussion)
respect for nature, radical egalitarianism in social relations,
institutional arrangements based in some sense of common interests and
common property, democratic administrative procedures (as opposed to the
monetized shams that now exist), labor processes organized by the direct
producers, daily life as the free exploration of new kinds of social
relations and living arrangements, mental conceptions that focus on
self-realization in service to others and technological and organizational
innovations oriented to the pursuit of the common good rather than to
supporting militarized power, surveillance and corporate greed. These could
be the co-revolutionary points around which social action could converge and
rotate. Of course this is utopian! But so what! We cannot afford not to
Let me detail one particular aspect of the problem which arise in the place
where I work. Ideas have consequences and false ideas can have devastating
consequences. Policy failures based on erroneous economic thinking played a
crucial role in both the run-up to the debacle of the 1930s and in the
seeming inability to find an adequate way out. Though there is no agreement
among historians and economists as to exactly what policies failed, it is
agreed that the knowledge structure through which the crisis was understood
needed to be revolutionized. Keynes and his colleagues accomplished that
task. But by the mid-1970s, it became clear that the Keynesian policy tools
were no longer working at least in the way they were being applied and it
was in this context that monetarism, supply-side theory and the (beautiful)
mathematical modelling of micro-economic market behaviors supplanted
broad-brush macro-economic Keynesian thinking. The monetarist and narrower
neoliberal theoretical frame that dominated after 1980 is now in question.
In fact it has disastrously failed.
We need new mental conceptions to understand the world. What might these be
and who will produce them, given both the sociological and intellectual
malaise that hangs over knowledge production and (equally important)
dissemination more generally? The deeply entrenched mental conceptions
associated with neoliberal theories and the neoliberalization and
corporatization of the universities and the media has played more than a
trivial role in the production of the present crisis. For example, the
whole question of what to do about the financial system, the banking sector,
the state-finance nexus and the power of private property rights, cannot be
broached without going outside of the box of conventional thinking. For this
to happen will require a revolution in thinking, in places as diverse as the
universities, the media and government as well as within the financial
institutions themselves.
Karl Marx, while not in any way inclined to embrace philosophical idealism,
held that ideas are a material force in history. Mental conceptions
constitute, after all, one of the seven moments in his general theory of
co-revolutionary change. Autonomous developments and inner conflicts over
what mental conceptions shall become hegemonic therefore have an important
historical role to play. It was for this reason that Marx (along with
Engels) wrote The Communist Manifesto, Capital and innumerable other works.
These works provide a systematic critique, albeit incomplete, of capitalism
and its crisis tendencies. But as Marx also insisted, it was only when
these critical ideas carried over into the fields of institutional
arrangements, organizational forms, production systems, daily life, social
relations, technologies and relations to nature that the world would truly
Since Marx’s goal was to change the world and not merely to understand it,
ideas had to be formulated with a certain revolutionary intent. This
inevitably meant a conflict with modes of thought more convivial to and
useful for the ruling class. The fact that Marx’s oppositional ideas,
particularly in recent years, have been the target of repeated repressions
and exclusions (to say nothing of bowdlerizations and misrepresentations
galore) suggests that his ideas may be too dangerous for the ruling classes
to tolerate. While Keynes repeatedly avowed that he had never read Marx, he
was surrounded and influenced in the 1930s by many people (like his
economist colleague Joan Robinson) who had. While many of them objected
vociferously to Marx’s foundational concepts and his dialectical mode of
reasoning, they were acutely aware of and deeply affected by some of his
more prescient conclusions. It is fair to say, I think, that the Keynesian
theory revolution could not have been accomplished without the subversive
presence of Marx lurking in the wings.
The trouble in these times is that most people have no idea who Keynes was
and what he really stood for while the knowledge of Marx is negligible. The
repression of critical and radical currents of thought, or to be more exact
the corralling of radicalism within the bounds of multiculturalism, identity
politics and cultural choice, creates a lamentable situation within the
academy and beyond, no different in principle to having to ask the bankers
who made the mess to clean it up with exactly the same tools as they used to
get into it. Broad adhesion to post-modern and post-structuralist ideas
which celebrate the particular at the expense of big-picture thinking does
not help. To be sure, the local and the particular are vitally important
and theories that cannot embrace, for example, geographical difference, are
worse than useless. But when that fact is used to exclude anything larger
than parish politics then the betrayal of the intellectuals and abrogation
of their traditional role become complete.
The current populations of academicians, intellectuals and experts in the
social sciences and humanities are by and large ill-equipped to undertake
the collective task of revolutionizing our knowledge structures. They have,
in fact, been deeply implicated in the construction of the new systems of
neoliberal governmentality that evade questions of legitimacy and democracy
and foster a technocratic authoritarian politics. Few seem predisposed to
engage in self-critical reflection. Universities continue to promote the
same useless courses on neo classical economic or rational choice political
theory as if nothing has happened and the vaunted business schools simply
add a course or two on business ethics or how to make money out of other
people’s bankruptcies. After all, the crisis arose out of human greed and
there is nothing that can be done about that!
The current knowledge structure is clearly dysfunctional and equally clearly
illegitimate. The only hope is that a new generation of perceptive students
(in the broad sense of all those who seek to know the world) will clearly
see it so and insist upon changing it. This happened in the 1960s. At
various other critical points in history student inspired movements,
recognizing the disjunction between what is happening in the world and what
they are being taught and fed by the media, were prepared to do something
about it. There are signs, from Tehran to Athens and onto many European
university campuses of such a movement. How the new generation of students
in China will act must surely be of deep concern in the corridors of
political power in Beijing.
A student-led and youthful revolutionary movement, with all of its evident
uncertainties and problems, is a necessary but not sufficient condition to
produce that revolution in mental conceptions that can lead us to a more
rational solution to the current problems of endless growth.
What, more broadly, would happen if an anti-capitalist movement were
constituted out of a broad alliance of the alienated, the discontented, the
deprived and the dispossessed? The image of all such people everywhere
rising up and demanding and achieving their proper place in economic, social
and political life, is stirring indeed. It also helps focus on the question
of what it is they might demand and what it is that needs to be done.
Revolutionary transformations cannot be accomplished without at the very
minimum changing our ideas, abandoning cherished beliefs and prejudices,
giving up various daily comforts and rights, submitting to some new daily
life regimen, changing our social and political roles, reassigning our
rights, duties and responsibilities and altering our behaviors to better
conform to collective needs and a common will. The world around us – our
geographies – must be radically re-shaped as must our social relations, the
relation to nature and all of the other moments in the co-revolutionary
process. It is understandable, to some degree, that many prefer a politics
of denial to a politics of active confrontation with all of this.
It would also be comforting to think that all of this could be accomplished
pacifically and voluntarily, that we would dispossess ourselves, strip
ourselves bare, as it were, of all that we now possess that stands in the
way of the creation of a more socially just, steady-state social order. But
it would be disingenuous to imagine that this could be so, that no active
struggle will be involved, including some degree of violence. Capitalism
came into the world, as Marx once put it, bathed in blood and fire. Although
it might be possible to do a better job of getting out from under it than
getting into it, the odds are heavily against any purely pacific passage to
the promised land.
There are various broad fractious currents of thought on the left as to how
to address the problems that now confront us. There is, first of all, the
usual sectarianism stemming from the history of radical action and the
articulations of left political theory. Curiously, the one place where
amnesia is not so prevalent is within the left (the splits between
anarchists and Marxists that occurred back in the 1870s, between
Trotskyists, Maoists and orthodox Communists, between the centralizers who
want to command the state and the anti-statist autonomists and anarchists).
The arguments are so bitter and so fractious, as to sometimes make one think
that more amnesia might be a good thing. But beyond these traditional
revolutionary sects and political factions, the whole field of political
action has undergone a radical transformation since the mid-1970s. The
terrain of political struggle and of political possibilities has shifted,
both geographically and organizationally.
There are now vast numbers of non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) that
play a political role that was scarcely visible before the mid-1970s. Funded
by both state and private interests, populated often by idealist thinkers
and organizers (they constitute a vast employment program), and for the most
part dedicated to single-issue questions (environment, poverty, women’s
rights, anti-slavery and trafficking work, etc) they refrain from straight
anti-capitalist politics even as they espouse progressive ideas and causes.
In some instances, however, they are actively neoliberal, engaging in
privatization of state welfare functions or fostering institutional reforms
to facilitate market integration of marginalized populations (microcredit
and microfinance schemes for low income populations are a classic example of
While there are many radical and dedicated practitioners in this NGO world,
their work is at best ameliorative. Collectively, they have a spotty record
of progressive achievements, although in certain arenas, such as women’s
rights, health care and environmental preservation, they can reasonably
claim to have made major contributions to human betterment. But
revolutionary change by NGO is impossible. They are too constrained by the
political and policy stances of their donors. So even though, in supporting
local empowerment, they help open up spaces where anti-capitalist
alternatives become possible and even support experimentation with such
alternatives, they do nothing to prevent the re-absorption of these
alternatives into the dominant capitalist practice: they even encourage it.
The collective power of NGOs in these times is reflected in the dominant
role they play in the World Social Forum, where attempts to forge a global
justice movement, a global alternative to neoliberalism, have been
concentrated over the last ten years.
The second broad wing of opposition arises out of anarchist, autonomist and
grass roots organizations (GROs) which refuse outside funding even as some
of them do rely upon some alternative institutional base (such as the
Catholic Church with its “base community” initiatives in Latin America or
broader church sponsorship of political mobilization in the inner cities of
the United States). This group is far from homogeneous (indeed there are
bitter disputes among them pitting, for example, social anarchists against
those they scathingly refer to as mere “lifestyle” anarchists). There is,
however, a common antipathy to negotiation with state power and an emphasis
upon civil society as the sphere where change can be accomplished.. The
self-organizing powers of people in the daily situations in which they live
has to be the basis for any anti-capitalist alternative. Horizontal
networking is their preferred organizing model. So-called “solidarity
economies” based on bartering, collectives and local production systems is
their preferred political economic form. They typically oppose the idea that
any central direction might be necessary and reject hierarchical social
relations or hierarchical political power structures along with conventional
political parties. Organizations of this sort can be found everywhere and
in some places have achieved a high degree of political prominence. Some of
them are radically anti-capitalist in their stance and espouse revolutionary
objectives and in some instances are prepared to advocate sabotage and other
forms of disruption (shades of the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader
Meinhoff in Germany and the Weather Underground in the United States in the
1970s). But the effectiveness of all these movements (leaving aside their
more violent fringes) is limited by their reluctance and inability to scale
up their activism into large-scale organizational forms capable of
confronting global problems. The presumption that local action is the only
meaningful level of change and that anything that smacks of hierarchy is
anti-revolutionary is self-defeating when it comes to larger questions. Yet
these movements are unquestionably providing a widespread base for
experimentation with anti-capitalist politics.
The third broad trend is given by the transformation that has been occurring
in traditional labor organizing and left political parties, varying from
social democratic traditions to more radical Trotskyist and Communist forms
of political party organization. This trend is not hostile to the conquest
of state power or hierarchical forms of organization. Indeed, it regards
the latter as necessary to the integration of political organization across
a variety of political scales. In the years when social democracy was
hegemonic in Europe and even influential in the United States, state control
over the distribution of the surplus became a crucial tool to diminish
inequalities. The failure to take social control over the production of
surpluses and thereby really challenge the power of the capitalist class was
the Achilles heel of this political system, but we should not forget the
advances that it made even if it is now clearly insufficient to go back to
such a political model with its social welfarism and Keynesian economics.
The Bolivarian movement in Latin America and the ascent to state power of
progressive social democratic governments is one of the most hopeful signs
of a resuscitation of a new form of left statism.
Both organized labor and left political parties have taken some hard hits in
the advanced capitalist world over the last thirty years. Both have either
been convinced or coerced into broad support for neoliberalization, albeit
with a somewhat more human face. One way to look upon neoliberalism, as was
earlier noted, is as a grand and quite revolutionary movement (led by that
self-proclaimed revolutionary figure, Margaret Thatcher) to privatize the
surpluses or at least prevent their further socialization.
While there are some signs of recovery of both labor organizing and left
politics (as opposed to the “third way” celebrated by New Labor in Britain
under Tony Blair and disastrously copied by many social democratic parties
in Europe) along with signs of the emergence of more radical political
parties in different parts of the world, the exclusive reliance upon a
vanguard of workers is now in question as is the ability of those leftist
parties that gain some access to political power to have a substantive
impact upon the development of capitalism and to cope with the troubled
dynamics of crisis-prone accumulation. The performance of the German Green
Party in power has hardly been stellar relative to their political stance
out of power and social democratic parties have lost their way entirely as a
true political force. But left political parties and labor unions are
significant still and their takeover of aspects of state power, as with the
workers party in Brazil or the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela has had a
clear impact on left thinking, not only in Latin America. The complicated
problem of how to interpret the role of the Communist Party in China, with
its exclusive control over political power, and what its future policies
might be about is not easily resolved either.
The co-revolutionary theory earlier laid out would suggest that there is no
way that an anti-capitalist social order can be constructed without seizing
state power, radically transforming it and re-working the constitutional
and institutional framework that currently supports private property, the
market system and endless capital accumulation. Inter-state competition and
geoconomic and geopolitical struggles over everything from trade and money
to questions of hegemony are also far too significant to be left to local
social movements or cast aside as too big to contemplate. How the
architecture of the state-finance nexus is to be re-worked along with the
pressing question of the common measure of value given by money cannot be
ignored in the quest to construct alternatives to capitalist political
economy. To ignore the state and the dynamics of the inter-state system is
therefore a ridiculous idea for any anti-capitalist revolutionary movement
to accept.
The fourth broad trend is constituted by all the social movements that are
not so much guided by any particular political philosophy or leanings but by
the pragmatic need to resist displacement and dispossession (through
gentrification, industrial development, dam construction, water
privatization, the dismantling of social services and public educational
opportunities, or whatever). In this instance the focus on daily life in
the city, town, village or wherever provides a material base for political
organizing against the threats that state policies and capitalist interests
invariably pose to vulnerable populations. These forms of protest politics
are massive.
Again, there is a vast array of social movements of this sort, some of which
can become radicalized over time as they more and more realize that the
problems are systemic rather than particular and local. The bringing
together of such social movements into alliances on the land (like the Via
Campesina, the landless peasant movement in Brazil or peasants mobilizing
against land and resource grabs by capitalist corporations in India) or in
urban contexts (the right to the city and take back the land movements in
Brazil and now the United States) suggest the way may be open to create
broader alliances to discuss and confront the systemic forces that underpin
the particularities of gentrification, dam construction, privatization or
whatever. More pragmatic rather than driven by ideological preconceptions,
these movements nevertheless can arrive at systemic understandings out of
their own experience. To the degree that many of them exist in the same
space, such as within the metropolis, they can (as supposedly happened with
the factory workers in the early stages of the industrial revolution) make
common cause and begin to forge, on the basis of their own experience, a
consciousness of how capitalism works and what it is that might collectively
be done. This is the terrain where the figure of the “organic intellectual”
leader, made so much of in Antonio Gramsci’s work, the autodidact who comes
to understand the world first hand through bitter experiences, but shapes
his or her understanding of capitalism more generally, has a great deal to
say. To listen to peasant leaders of the MST in Brazil or the leaders of
the anti-corporate land grab movement in India is a privileged education. In
this instance the task of the educated alienated and discontented is to
magnify the subaltern voice so that attention can be paid to the
circumstances of exploitation and repression and the answers that can be
shaped into an anti-capitalist program.
The fifth epicenter for social change lies with the emancipatory movements
around questions of identity – women, children, gays, racial, ethnic and
religious minorities all demand an equal place in the sun – along with the
vast array of environmental movements that are not explicitly
anti-capitalist. The movements claiming emancipation on each of these
issues are geographically uneven and often geographically divided in terms
of needs and aspirations. But global conferences on women’s rights (Nairobi
in 1985 that led to the Beijing declaration of 1995) and anti-racism (the
far more contentious conference in Durban in 2009) are attempting to find
common ground, as is true also of the environmental conferences, and there
is no question that social relations are changing along all of these
dimensions at least in some parts of the world. When cast in narrow
essentialist terms, these movements can appear to be antagonistic to class
struggle. Certainly within much of the academy they have taken priority of
place at the expense of class analysis and political economy. But the
feminization of the global labor force, the feminization of poverty almost
everywhere and the use of gender disparities as a means of labor control
make the emancipation and eventual liberation of women from their
repressions a necessary condition for class struggle to sharpen its focus.
The same observation applies to all the other identity forms where
discrimination or outright repression can be found. Racism and the
oppression of women and children were foundational in the rise of
capitalism. But capitalism as currently constituted can in principle
survive without these forms of discrimination and oppression, though its
political ability to do so will be severely curtailed if not mortally
wounded in the face of a more unified class force. The modest embrace of
multiculturalism and women’s rights within the corporate world, particularly
in the United States, provides some evidence of capitalism’s accommodation
to these dimensions of social change (including the environment), even as it
re-emphasizes the salience of class divisions as the principle dimension for
political action.
These five broad tendencies are not mutually exclusive or exhaustive of
organizational templates for political action. Some organizations neatly
combine aspects of all five tendencies. But there is a lot of work to be
done to coalesce these various tendencies around the underlying question:
can the world change materially, socially, mentally and politically in such
a way as to confront not only the dire state of social and natural relations
in so many parts of the world, but also the perpetuation of endless compound
growth? This is the question that the alienated and discontented must
insist upon asking, again and again, even as they learn from those who
experience the pain directly and who are so adept at organizing resistances
to the dire consequences of compound growth on the ground.
Communists, Marx and Engels averred in their original conception laid out in
The Communist Manifesto, have no political party. They simply constitute
themselves at all times and in all places as those who understand the
limits, failings and destructive tendencies of the capitalist order as well
as the innumerable ideological masks and false legitimations that
capitalists and their apologists (particularly in the media) produce in
order to perpetuate their singular class power. Communists are all those
who work incessantly to produce a different future to that which capitalism
portends. This is an interesting definition. While traditional
institutionalized communism is as good as dead and buried, there are by this
definition millions of de facto communists active among us, willing to act
upon their understandings, ready to creatively pursue anti-capitalist
imperatives. If, as the alternative globalization movement of the late 1990s
declared, ‘another world is possible’ then why not also say ‘another
communism is possible’? The current circumstances of capitalist development
demand something of this sort, if fundamental change is to be achieved.
These notes draw heavily on my forthcoming book, The Enigma of Capital, to
be published by Profile Books in April 2010.

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